Tips from an expert: How to grow into your best self as an expat

  • Andre, serial expat and author
Published on 2021-05-19 at 12:00 by Veedushi
Andre calls himself a wanderer. His experience of travelling in more than 50 countries and living in some of them turned him into an author recently. He talks to us about his book and gives out some tips for growing into your best self as an expat.

Can you please introduce yourself and tell us about your background?

I´m a happy person, a wanderer, a nomad, a serial entrepreneur and a life-long learner. I´ve lived the expat life as an M.Sc. student in Denmark and Australia and as a start-up founder in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in Brazil. I´ve travelled to 57 countries on 6 continents. Started and run tens of businesses and projects in 7 countries. My home base is Tallinn, Estonia. I´ve had some great times and some hard hits. Yet, I´ve enjoyed every moment of the expat experience, despite all the challenges on the road. 

You describe yourself as a serial expat, having travelled and lived in many countries. How has this experience transformed your life?

If there is one life advice that I give people, then it's this: go and live abroad for a while, it will change you and your life. Living abroad 8 years has made me more resilient, empathetic, open-minded, self-aware, self-reliant, confident, adaptable and less fearful. Change is inevitable to anyone who lives in another culture. The novel environment induces our brain to grow and fortify new neural connections that will expand our knowledge base and broaden our comfort zone.

You are the author of the book: "ExpatYears: How to Grow Into Your Best Self While Living Abroad", which is based on your own experience. What has inspired you and helped you to grow?

I have just finished the book manuscript´s 3rd revision and starting the publication process. So, I´m a semi-author still. But the book will be out this year.

What makes us pursue personal growth can be internal or external. External being usually a hard life experience that makes us re-evaluate who we are. I think for me, the inspiring factor to grow has been mainly internal – the curiosity to experience new things and the open-mindedness to let those experiences mould me. What would be a more perfect place to find new experiences than overseas? I talk a lot about the importance of empowering beliefs in my book – our beliefs really do determine our expat experience. They are the essence that helps us grow. So, it makes sense to work on them already before the move. But it's never too late.

How can stories and experiences such as yours help expats who yet have to take the leap or are struggling with their new life abroad?

It's always best to learn from others' mistakes and experiences than your own. Actually, the most profound way to learn is from personal experience, as this creates stronger connections in the brain and leads to deeper insights. But there's not enough time to learn everything on your own. Trust me, I've learned that the hard way.

When I was living in Rio de Janeiro and trying to get my start-up company to fly, then I was very much trying to do it on my own. When things got rough, I found the habit of reading other people's stories and books. This helped to calm down the mind, to grow and see things in a new light, as well as persist through the tough times. Books can be a tremendous source of inspiration. That's what I try to pass on with my book – to give people inspiration and optimism.

In your opinion, what are the different factors that can help expats grow into their best self while living abroad?

In ExpatYears book, I talk a lot about the neuroscience, psychology, growth mindset and spirituality behind growth. In a nutshell, some of the main factors follow. Understanding that people who grow do so in spite of fear, they feel comfortable outside their comfort zones. This is possible because of their optimistic view of life and their supporting beliefs. Awareness and goal-setting are important to growing into the direction you want, not merely to the direction of your circumstances. Open-mindedness is another prerequisite to growth. You can't grow if your subconscious mind (95% of our brain) is secretly against it, trying to keep the status quo. The drive to learn new things and new ways of doing things. The ability to stay focused on the present moment, not to time-travel between the past and the future (regrets and expectations) inside the mind. What information you let in greatly determines what comes out as your life result. Hence, choosing consciously your sources of information matters. Those are but a few key factors to think about.

We all know that living overseas comes with a load of fears and challenges. How can expats overcome this, especially in the absence of a support group?

The question is well put... challenges. So many expats use the word “problem”. Myself included, from time to time. But all those peculiar things that happen to us abroad should be seen as challenges. The brain loves a good challenge, doesn't it? A challenge can make us develop and come out as a winner on the other side of it. If we focus on the lessons that we can learn from a challenge, then it is impossible to fail. To learn means to grow. If we grow from a challenge, then we have not failed.

What if your beliefs were: “I love to find cultural differences and learn how to overcome them” and “I'm not expecting a normal boring life, I want to be challenged, that's why I'm here”. How do you think your body and your mind would react to adversity if this is what you believe? A lot of “problems” overseas would stop to exist. They would become opportunities instead.

As for the support group, there are countless expats who all experience the same challenge. All we have to do is to find them and connect openly. In today's interconnected world, that is easy. Instead of telling yourself “I've lost my support group”, ask yourself “how to find and create a new empowering support group?”. The answers will come: take up a new hobby, find expat Facebook groups, use forums and groups, get out there. The solution will not come from sitting on the sofa and watching TV. I apologise for my bluntness here.

How long does it take for an expat to grow and create a new identity when living abroad? And what happens to this identity when they decide to move to another country?

It's very personal. Some do it faster, some slower, some will never get there. It depends on the person as well as their life situation. I've lived abroad alone as a student, and together with my partner, as a professional. The dynamic is different, but I've enjoyed both, and I´ve grown and changed in both cases. As I'm not looking for the comfort zone in life, and enjoy the novelty, then I personally start to mould my identity right away. Forming a new identity is a process to enjoy, not a goal to achieve. So, I'd refrain from giving it a deadline. People might tend to start waiting for it to happen instead of enjoying the process. Let it take as long as it takes. More important is to learn to enjoy the road. Trust that the 80 billion neurons inside your skull will manage it. They will learn the ropes without all the stress, control and expectations. Holding on to a fixed identity is holding on to our ego. To go really deep for a moment, this is where all our problems start in the first place.

As an expat entrepreneur, you have run businesses in many countries, had some great times and failures as well. Is there any particular thing that expats should keep in mind when starting a business abroad?

Leave your expectations behind the border. Things are different in a new country. Not wrong, not right, just different. You can't change the system; the change has to start from yourself. Stop comparing and assuming. What I did wrong myself at the beginning was to focus too much on the obstacles and not enough on the solutions. There are more challenges abroad, but also more opportunities. What do you choose to focus on?

Also, remember that people are different, including your employees and your clients. From the surface level, it can all seem the same. But digging deeper, the deep-rooted differences come out.

I talk a lot about my daily business challenges in the book. After all, I was setting up a start-up company in one of the most bureaucratic business environments in the world – Brazil. I think it´s a comforting and beneficial read for all entrepreneurs. You are not the only one experiencing the challenges.

What are your tips for getting out of a comfort zone and exploring the world as an expat?

The realisation that we all have fears, and it's ok. Fear is nothing more than a specific neurochemical reaction in our body. It's an evolutionary overreaction to the comparatively soft problems of our times (the sabre-toothed tigers are long gone). To thrive, we need to accept it and mentally overcome it. The cortisol and adrenaline can make our stomachs turn, true, but it's just a construct of the mind; the fear is not the reality. I reveal many stories from Rio de Janeiro, where fears came up for me and how I tackled them and what actually happened in reality.

The comfort zone is always bordered by fears. If we learn to be aware and to consciously dismiss our fears, then we are ready to step out of the comfort zone and explore the world. Growth by its definition can only happen outside the comfort zone. That´s where new habits and beliefs start to form. Everything else is just practising and perfecting our ingrained models, not growth.

Is there a lesson that living abroad has taught you so far?

The lessons are plentiful, and I'm extremely grateful for all of them. There is one lesson that I see fit to talk about today. Estonians, like myself, are often shy and introverted in their nature. Brazil taught me to go more for what I want, to talk openly about my goals and to ask for help if I need it. In this sense, it really changed me. Hey, I wouldn't have written such an open book if it was not for Brazil. 

I do wish you just enough exciting challenges in your life abroad to make the time worthwhile, memorable and full of personal growth because I know that the expat time includes a lot of beautiful moments and fun! Learn to love every moment of it, even the hardships!